If you had been reading the 14th July (2016) edition of the free Metro newspaper, you might be forgiven for overlooking a small Metro Bites headline on the front page, describing a significant species discovery:
“A rare species of false scorpion was rediscovered under a boulder in Dorset. The 1.5mm-long Kewochthonius halberti was last recorded in Devon in the late 1920s”
Nothing further was mentioned, no image was appended and no explanation given as to what it was, what its business was under the boulder, or why you should care.
A similar story ran on the BBC news website headed, “False scorpion’ species recorded in UK for first time in 80 years”. But this time, it went further to explain that, “Pseudo-scorpions look like scorpions but without the stinging tail.”
The fact that a False- or Pseudo-scorpion had made the front page of a national newspaper was probably the greater story in itself. The very small invertebrates that we have been studying as part of the BESS/F3UES project are very literally overlooked by even the most enthusiastic naturalist. Often simply because of their small size and the need for specialist microscopy equipment to even see them at all, or even more likely because they can be very hard to accurately identify due to their close similarity to one another. As mentioned previously, within this microscopic world, significant discoveries await the patient observer.
Pseudoscorpions, are mite-like arachnids that hunt for tiny prey among leaf litter, under bark, in compost heaps and among beach flotsam. There are also tiny ‘book scorpions’ (Cheiridium museorum) that live in old libraries, barns and thatched roofs. They are harmless to humans, as although they have powerful pincers (for their size; 1.3 – 4.2mm in length), they have no poisonous sting like their larger cousins. They are, however, active hunters and prey on many small invertebrates, which they capture with their pincers and devour with their equally ferocious mouthparts. Due to their small size and adaptable claws, they often get around by clinging on to the legs of flies and other insects and hitchhike their way to new habitats. If you are fortunate enough to find one, they are fascinating to watch, as they run equally well backwards and will wave their little claws in the air as if telling you to back off.
Putting a name to one is another matter. In order to recognise the significant from the everyday and sort the common from the rare, it is essential to have up to date, accurate and accessible information upon which to base identifications. Years ago, scientists worked in near isolation, finding and naming species, only to find that years before, in another lab, possibly in a different language, someone else had found the same species and given it a different name. In fact, even in the above example, in the months since the Metro printed its story, Kewochthonius has become simply Chthonius as researchers juggle the literature to find the name with the highest priority. Nothing is simple in the world of taxonomy (the science of naming life on earth), but at least today we can rapidly search thousands of papers and books from all over the world and directly communicate with all the researchers sharing your interests. There is also sophisticated digital photography and online publishing techniques which make sharing species information so much more accurate and extensive than ever before.
Pseudoscorpions are seldom seen, even by experienced entomologists. In the F3UES samples we were surprised to collect over 100 specimens. Due to the difficulties in identifying such obscure animals, we thought we would leave them named simply as ‘Pseudoscorpion’. However, the Field Studies Council have been working with the national recorder, Gerald Legg and Francis Farr-Cox to produce a simplified key to the British species. In June, 2016, F3UES researcher Paul Richards (also Sheffield’s Pseudoscorpion recorder) went along to an event to help test and modify the new fold-out identification chart before it is published. The large number of F3UES samples were used to trial the key and all were identified to species. Through the process, typos, confusing terms and inaccuracies were corrected to hopefully provide a final version that will provide the first real user-friendly guide for beginners to the study of these fascinating creatures.
Through this training process and using the F3UES collection, it is hoped that the resulting identification guide will offer new opportunities for people to appreciate these animals more, and knowledge about their habitats and distribution can be more accurately obtained. To be honest, I thought that Pseudoscorpions were always going to be an overlooked and under-studied group, but with new technology and cooperation between a community of experts, they look like losing their Cinderella status. They may never quite rival Butterflies and Dragonflies, but at least there is now a realistic chance to actually recognise the species and find out more about them. Who knows, before long we may be seeing more headlines about completely new species being discovered because of more people being captured by a fascination for these amazing creatures. Not a false idol, but a true star of the micro world.